Film #114: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

smaugphotodirector: Peter Jackson
language: English, Sindarin, Black Speech
length: 161 minutes
watched on: 1 March 2014

Another epic offering from Peter Jackson, another film released three months later in Japan than anywhere else. This time it’s particularly infuriating because Part One was released on schedule, at the same time as it was released in America and Britain.

Like Part One, Part Two drags out the story to incredible lengths and fills a lot of the story with parts that were originally written for the Appendices and the Silmarillion. Jackson’s movies are interesting and to some extent fun, but it’s not the same as the book whose name is attached to its title. The main problem I’m seeing with the upcoming Part Three is that the corresponding section of the book was literally one chapter reading “and then Bilbo went home again”. I’m starting to think now that when Part Three comes out someone is going to have to pare the movies down to actually match the book and see what we could have had.

I am interested to see what happens as a prologue to The Lord of the Rings, such as in this book, Gandalf going to a dark tower and witnessing Sauron’s release from whatever prison he’s in – but in that case, why not make two films: one as a straight adaptation of The Hobbit, and one as a straight adaptation of The Silmarillion? You could even have scenes being cross-referenced between the two movies by filming them simultaneously.

The Silmarillion aside, it’s not the only stuff that’s been added to the book. The whole scene with the dragon was extended a lot, and includes the dwarves barging in while Bilbo is in there, which I’m fairly sure didn’t actually happen in the book. It becomes an epic battle scene with the characters running through great halls and floating on molten gold. It’s very possible that the original scene wasn’t cinematic enough, but is there really a need to drag out the scene so much that it literally ends the movie on a cliffhanger?

I can accept that scene, but it crosses the line into self-indulgence with the character of Tauriel, and Legolas’s whole appearance in the movie. I’ve seen complaints about them before, but Legolas just appears out of nowhere. It’s useful for him to appear because it shows how his character changes over the course of the Lord of the Rings movies, and shows a bit more continuity with those movies, but that just underlines the whole mentality of having the Hobbit movies being a prologue to the Lord of the Rings movies, rather than an adaptation of The Hobbit.

Tauriel is a different story: her character is a complete invention to try and make the movie’s world less male-dominated. It’s a sign of the times changing, perhaps, that we feel we need someone like her now, but that when Tolkien wrote the book in the 30s, it wasn’t seen as necessary. In theory, I support this, but I don’t support that Tauriel’s main storyline was a romance with the youngest and cutest dwarf. I could take this two ways: either it’s shoehorning heterosexual relationships where they don’t need to be, or it’s reducing female roles in a movie to that of love interest. And either way, it’s self-indulgent.

I’m also disappointed with a couple of the other changes with the movie, such as Bjorn’s role being reduced near the beginning, because I remember at least a whole chapter of the book being them staying with him. Or there’s the fact that there’s not as much comedic moments, and Bilbo never outsmarts anyone in the movie. But the movie does have its merits. The giant spider scene is suitably scary and basically what I remember from the book, and the dragon scene was good, even though it wasn’t the one from the book. Stephen Fry’s presence in Laketown was unexpected but very well-executed.

So taken on what Jackson wants it to be, an epic prologue to The Lord of the Rings, it arguably works well and serves its purpose. But as an adaptation of the book version of The Hobbit, it frankly falls flat and doesn’t deliver some of the key scenes, supplementing it with fight scenes and epic battles, which frankly get tiring to watch in 3D. I can’t imagine why they thought that was necessary.

Film #113: Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)

Kiki-kiki-kikis-delivery-service-27960951-1280-1024aka: 魔女の宅急便 (Majo no takkyūbin)
director: Hayao Miyazaki
language: Japanese
length: 102 minutes
watched on: 27 February 2014

It’s been a few months since I watched any Ghibli, but as I probably mentioned on this blog when I watched Howl’s Moving Castle, one of the goals in the back of my mind is to keep rewatching the rest, and perhaps finally catch up on Grave of the Fireflies. Also, if the statistics for the past few years are to be believed, I always have a lull in film-watching during February, and didn’t even watch any last February as I was concentrating on reading, so this year I wanted to alter that trend.

Kiki was never my favourite Ghibli movie, but all of Miyazaki’s hallmarks are there – beautiful backgrounds, female protagonist, magical story, etc. I had forgotten the basic storyline of this movie before I watched it again – basically, Kiki is a young witch, who, by tradition, has to go off in search of a far away land in order to train herself to be a witch, at the age of 13. She ends up choosing a relatively modern city, where witches haven’t lived for a long time, and setting up a delivery service. She’s instantly noticed by Tombo, a boy who hangs out with a gang of other teenagers and reminds me of Tintin, who is obsessed with building his own flying machines. He ends up persistently pursuing her, and she realizes he’s not that bad after all, although his friends are not the nicest. However, depression sets in after a while as things become too much for Kiki, in her day and age far too young to be leaving home, and she finds herself unable to fly or cope with her situation.

That particular theme is probably familiar to any of us who’ve ever left home. Things aren’t always easy, and sometimes we have to take a break. And the way Kiki’s life changes over the course of the movie is familiar to me. It may change, but that doesn’t mean it get’s worse.

Kiki’s world is in a strange anachronistic mishmash of different European countries. People seem to write in English, but talk in Japanese, and there are hints of German or Italian culture here and there. There are cars and telephones, but also electric ovens, which seem to me to occupy different eras. The name of the bakery where Kiki works is printed in a faux German style, but is clearly actually Japanese.

It’s one of Miyazaki’s most famous works, anyway, and I’ve heard it’s been made into a live-action movie now, although from what I remember, the actors playing Kiki and Tombo are clearly way over 13. I’d be mildly interested in seeing that, perhaps, but even after rewatching it it’s not my favourite Miyazaki movie. I much prefer his other ones like Totoro or Spirited Away.

Book #52: Swordspoint: A Melodrama of Manners (1987)

swordspoint_audiowriter/narrator: Ellen Kushner
language: English
length: 653 minutes (10 hours 53 minutes)
finished listening on: 25 February 2014

Yet another audiobook: I’ve been chewing my way through them very quickly because they make a useful accompaniment to exercise. This one was written in 1987, but only made into an audiobook recently on the advice of Neil Gaiman, who liked the book, and apparently has an audiobook publishing label. The author, Ellen Kushner, now primarily makes a living doing radio, meaning that she is quite competent at doing the narration herself. For the key scenes, they also have a full cast to narrate the characters, although unlike the other Neil Gaiman audiobook I listened to, or the Philip Pullman ones I listened to a few years back, this only happens in about half the chapters of Swordspoint, and for the rest of the book, Kushner narrates everything. This particular audiobook does something I haven’t heard before, which is provide sound effects for a lot of scenes, such as background noises, footsteps, knocks on the door, or in crowd scenes, people chatting or reacting to the action. It was very professionally produced and clearly, a lot of thought went into it.

I came across the book mainly because it was recommended by someone on the internet as having well-written gay relationships in it, and that much is definitely true – one of the main characters, the swordsman Richard, is in a relationship with another man, and some of the other characters pursue their own gender. I enjoyed reading about them, and I perked up when I first realized what the book was describing. I’m also glad that Kushner herself is gay (or bi; she’s married to a woman in any case), as I’ve specifically rejected reading books listed in Audible’s and Amazon’s Gay & Lesbian sections because they were obvious written and read only by straight women.

The book is listed as fantasy, but frankly the main thing I see as fantasy is the fact that these same-sex relationships aren’t seen as sinful or strange, and nobody looks down condescendingly on Richard and Alec for dating, for instance. It’s also been described as a fairy tale, but again, I didn’t see any magical elements to the story, just a medieval/Renaissance kingdom setting, and a lot of sword battles.

The characters are the driving force of the story, so it’s perhaps annoying for me that there are so many, making some of the early court and party scenes confusing, but by about halfway through, I was sufficiently invested in most of the characters that I wanted to find out what happens to them all.

It wasn’t as easy to follow as a book like Jam, or even American Gods – I think in this case, the conversations were much more convoluted and with even more characters, but it was a lot easier to follow than, for instance, The Wild Boys, as it actually had a proper plot structure. Most of the plot is conveyed through conversation, similar to Death Note.

Even though at times I got bored or found it difficult to follow, I was still impressed with this book, and I’m looking forward to reading some more by Kushner in the future.

Film #112: R’ha (2013)

RhashortScifiRobotsMistEntertsr02adirector: Kaleb Lechowski
language: English
length: 6 minutes
watched on: 24 February

I found this via a post on Tumblr, I think. It’s a short film, available on Vimeo, which is a glimpse of a sci-fi world. The 3D graphics are very sophisticated, and evidently it was all created by one student, apart from the music and voices.

The story was completely bare-bones, but there was a four-armed humanoid held captive by a machine reminiscent of those in The Matrix. The alien somehow escapes and gets into his spacecraft to fly away. Meanwhile, the city is being destroyed by the machines.

I’ve mainly included it here as a kind of quick note because I was impressed by its technical prowess. I’d be interested in seeing more from the filmmaker.

Book #51: Death Note 1: Boredom (2004)

978408873621_jaaka: Death Note 1: Taikutsu (デスノート1 退屈)
written by: Tsugumi Ohba
illustrated by: Takeshi Obata
language: Japanese with bits of English
length: 194 pages
finished on: 18 Feb 2014

Back in 2010 I watched/got addicted to the anime version of Death Note, the story of a teenager, Light, who gains the power to kill anyone by writing their name in a notebook. He uses it to kill criminals whose details are publically available. After an investigation is launched against him, it turns into a mindgame played between him and the mysterious L, a consultant to the police. I had already noted that the manga is not a long one – if I compare it with other famous mangas like One Piece or Naruto, those run up to about 50 volumes, but Death Note maxes out at 9.

I picked up the first one when I came out of an onsen in January where they had a big manga library, and was surprised at how much I could read (since it’s mostly in Japanese apart from the “How to Use” sections which are written in English with a Japanese translation). So I decided to order it from Amazon – luckily, you can get copies for ¥1, so I was only paying the ¥240 delivery fee.

I was slow to read through it all, and it turns out that actually, there are a lot of hard words, especially in the sections where the police talk to each other (although having seen the anime, I should perhaps have been able to predict that). The pace of the manga itself is also very slow. By the end of the manga, although shots have been fired between L and Light, they haven’t met yet, and most of the story is told through discussion between either Light and his demon companion Ryuk, or between L and the police. Sometimes it’s hard to discern what’s happening, as we establish what Light is doing all the time with the Death Note in the first chapter, and thereafter just assume that it keeps on going – it’s not really depicted again so much, so sometimes it’s easy to forget why the police investigation is happening.

My Japanese is not all that great yet, so although the book helpfully includes “furigana” (phonetic guides) on all the kanji, it’s often not enough, and I had to constantly check the dictionary in between reading. That’s tiring, though, so I often just skipped the word. So there are plenty of cases where I probably missed out on an important plot point as a result. I guess I don’t really care that much, though. Perhaps in another two or three years if I keep studying Japanese I’ll be able to understand even more.

I’m kind of interested in reading the next one, but my next foray into attempting to read Japanese will probably be One Piece, since I’m curious about why it’s so popular. Also, the slow pace and hard vocabulary have put me off a little. The other option, of course, is to read it in English. Perhaps I should try that instead.

TV: Futurama season 7 (2012-13)

Futurama-Season-7-Episode-22-Leela-and-the-GenestalkCreators: Matt Groening & David X. Cohen
Language: English
Length: 26 episodes of about 22 minutes
Finished watching on: 6 Feb 2014

Futurama’s creators have done that thing again of creating “one” season of their show and then releasing it over two years, which necessitates the question: is this season 7 or seasons 8 and 9? This is a bit of an annoying trend because it makes it more difficult for me to keep track of them…

In any case, this season is carrying on the good trends of the previous ones. Some episodes are very bland, some are silly, and then there are the unexpected tugs at the heartstring in some episodes. There is perhaps a trend for “special” out-of-canon episodes, such as one where all the characters have animal doppelgangers, and the episode is like a nature documentary following three different groups of them.

Now I just have to go back to hoping the creators will find another network that will host their show… apparently it’s been cancelled yet again. I don’t know what Comedy Central are playing at with that.

Book #50: The Wild Boys (1969)

61jbKwKMp9L._SY300_author: William S. Burroughs
language: English
length: 346 minutes (5 hours 46 minutes)
finished listening on: 6 Feb 2014

This book was, I think, one of my suggestions on the audiobook site I use. I’ve never actually read any of the beat poets before, so I was interested to find out what their writing is like. Burroughs’ work seemed as good a place as any to start – besides, I think the poetry might be too insufferable for me.

Burroughs, evidently, is famous for an experimental style called the “cut-up technique”, which involves him writing two or three coherent tales and cutting up each page and stitching it all back together in a different order. It was only after I found this out that I started to understand why it was so incoherent in places. Somehow I feel this is probably not as successful in audio form, as with a printed book I would have presumably been able to reread something a few times to get a better sense of how the different parts of the text fit together and would have been able to reread it out of order for a different story.

As it is, the words being often odd or confusing, and the text incoherent for most of the time, it took me a while to get into it, but after that I was hooked, because despite being incoherent, it’s very beautiful and not to mention erotic prose. Plus, compared to some of the other audiobooks I’ve listened to recently, it’s not nearly as long.

From what I can discern of the plot, the book is generally about teenage boys having sex with each other and generally running riot and rebelling against heterosexual society. The Wild Boys of the title are described mainly in one of the most coherent chapters towards the end, as a group of boys in Morocco who discover how to birth children without the influence of women, which reminds me heavily of Kronar in the comic Oglaf, and roam around the deserts and cities causing havoc.

The whole thing seems to be pure fantasy, and it’s interesting overall for me to practically see inside the mind of the author and his fantasies. I’m probably still going to stick to narrative fiction in general, though: while this is interesting, I have to have a completely different mindset while listening to/reading/watching this kind of thing, requiring me to let the whole thing wash over me and later see if it fits into some kind of coherency rather than it obviously doing so already. But if I do that, it’s all too easy to let it blend into the background too much, and I do get this problem where I hear them talking about one thing and wonder how we reached that point, and there’s the other problem of returning to conventional narratives and having to reset my brain to a different mode of thinking.

But overall it’s a slightly unexpected positive recommendation from me. But before I forget, it is also very erotic and at times it’s practically gay porn, so it also comes with a bit of a warning for those not expecting it…